Jakarta Attacks Heighten Alert across Southeast Asia

By Ernest Z. Bower, Thomas Sanderson, & Phuong Nguyen

Washington awoke on January 14 to news that a series of explosions and gunfire in the bustling Indonesian capital Jakarta, a city of more than 10 million, left at least seven dead and many more injured. Reports indicate that fighters linked to the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have claimed responsibility for the attacks. Following exactly two months after the Paris terror attacks, what happened in Jakarta—albeit being on a smaller scale—will likely raise the level of anxiety across Indonesia, and pose challenges to U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia.

Q1: What exactly happened in Jakarta? Who was behind the attack?

A1: A series of explosions and gunfire on Jalan Thamrin, a busy road in central Jakarta and home to numerous high-rise building and shopping centers, on the morning of January 14 (Jakarta time) left at least seven dead and more than 20 injured. Authorities believe the attack was aimed at a police station in the area, and was carried out by at least five attackers, two of whom were suicide bombers. All five perpetrators died after police rushed to respond to the blasts.


Location of attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia on January 14, 2016. Source: Voice of America image, U.S. Government Work.

Location of attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia on January 14, 2016. Source: Voice of America image, U.S. Government Work.

The site of the attack is not far from the United Nations offices, the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, and the Indonesian presidential palace. Shortly after the attack, a news service close to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Amaq, claimed that ISIS fighters carried out the blasts targeting foreign nationals in the area and Indonesian security forces, long a common target for terrorist networks and sympathizers in Indonesia. A police spokesman said the police had received a warning from ISIS back in November 2015 that there would be a “concert,” or attack, in Indonesia.

Q2: How has the Indonesian government responded?

A2: President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s cabinet and the Indonesian police and armed forces wasted no time in responding to the attack. During a news conference held at the presidential palace, Jakarta police chief and former national counterterrorism director Tito Karnavian said the group of attackers were linked to Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian ISIS fighter currently based in Raqqa, Syria. According to the police, Bahrun claims to be a leader of Katibah Nusantara, a Southeast Asian unit of ISIS. President Jokowi condemned the “acts of terror” and called on the Indonesian public to remain calm during a television address, and later visited the scene of the attack.

The January 14 explosions were the first major attack on Jakarta since the 2009 bombings of two hotels in central Jakarta. However, Indonesian authorities have been on high alert for at least the past year, and foiled a number of planned terror plots—including one last year to bomb churches and a police station in the Central Java Province on August 17, Indonesia’s national day, and another to carry out suicide bombings on the islands of Java and Sumatra to target the country’s Christian minority during New Year festivities. The January 14 attack followed a series of arrests of terror suspects that Indonesian authorities have made in recent weeks in an effort to beef up security measures for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Authorities also arrested scores of ISIS sympathizers who tried to leave Indonesia for Syria or Iraq last year, and have worked with the Turkish government to repatriate Indonesian nationals who were trying to cross into Syria from the border with Turkey.

Q3: What are the major terrorist groups active in Indonesia today that have sworn allegiance to ISIS? How does ISIS view Indonesia?

A3: Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is Indonesia’s most well-known terrorist group, and remains linked to al Qaeda. Jemaah Ansharut Tawhid is a JI splinter group, created by former JI leader Abu Bakar Bashir. When Bashir pledged allegiance to ISIS in July, 2014, some members objected, prompting them to break off and form a new group. A third group is known as Mujahidin Indonesian Timur (MIT), and is led by Abu Warda Santoso who swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July, 2014.

As the Katibah Nusantara expands and gains experience, it could result in the Islamic State placing greater priority on SE Asia as a direct war zone, with an eventual province or Wilayat declared on the 17,000 island archipelago. Unconfirmed reports suggest that ISIS is cultivating Poso, Indonesia—located in the Central Sulawesi region—as the location for a training camp in SE Asia. Security forces arrested both Indonesians and foreigners believed linked to ISIS in Poso in 2015. Indications within ISIS media propose the potential establishment of a Southeast Asia ISIS province. There have yet to be any official reports of such a claim.

Q4: Is the attack a sign of things to come for Indonesia, and Southeast Asia more broadly?

A4: Despite Jakarta’s high state of alertness, it is impossible to prevent all such attacks. Although Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country (with a total population of more than 250 million), estimates show there have been around 300 Indonesians who have joined ISIS, representing a tiny fraction—0.00012 percent of the population, or 1.4 per million Muslims in Indonesia—compared to 14 per million Muslims in neighboring Australia or 8.5 per million Muslims in much smaller Malaysia, or 40 per million Muslims in the case of Belgium.

The recent attack is expected to bring counterterrorism near the very top of the Jokowi government’s agenda. The Indonesian police and counterterrorism forces are well-trained and have had a good track record since the 2002 Bali bombing that left more than 200 people dead. Their responses to the January 14 attack are a good indicator that they will rise to the challenges to come, with the strong support of Indonesians. Indonesians have quickly taken to social media to reaffirm President Jokowi’s message—that as a people, they are not afraid. Moderate Indonesian citizens will be the most effective anti-terror, anti-radicalization force in their country.

What happened in Jakarta confirms that ISIS will continue expanding its operations in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Malaysian and Singaporean authorities, in particular, have been extremely attuned to security threats posed by ISIS. In recent high-level consultations, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean officials have agreed to step up joint efforts to fight radicalism domestically and inter-governmental intelligence sharing on counter-terrorism.

Q5: What does this mean for U.S. policy toward Indonesia and ASEAN?

A5: Concerns about ISIS threats in Indonesia, and the Southeast Asian region more broadly, were one of the main driving forces prompting President Jokowi to push for an upgrade of U.S.-Indonesia relations from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership in October 2015. Just as they did in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombing, Washington and Jakarta should immediately strengthen their joint counterterrorism efforts. One area in which Indonesia can use more assistance is in fighting radicalization at the grassroots level; the United States could help Indonesia set up a center to counter extremism in cyberspace, given that youth are most likely to become radicalized through online platforms. Washington last year provided assistance for Kuala Lumpur to set up such a center. The two governments should also step up exchanges and intelligence sharing among their agencies dealing with counterterrorism.

The United States can also assist ASEAN’s national police bodies in their own efforts—which are underway—to bolster communications mechanisms among themselves. ASEAN and the United States also elevated ties to a strategic partnership in November 2015, prompted primarily by concerns about global ISIS threats and the increasingly volatile situation in the South China Sea. Washington should see the region’s 600-million-strong population, many of whom are young, media-savvy, and practice moderate Islam, as an asset in helping it fight back against global extremism.

Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS. Mr. Thomas Sanderson directs the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @tomsanderson98. Ms. Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.


Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.


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